July 12, 2009

Buying A Video Camera: Can We Trust The Experts? (Sanyo Xacti FH1 vs Canon Vixia HF series)

How do you make the right decision about a product you know little about?
Would you rather have Hyundai or Honda, Magasonic or Panasonic, Samsung or Sony? These days, brands mean less because so much manufacturing is outsourced. Think of electronics and clothing. You’ll find many internal similarities among products. The Innovator's Dilemma describes four stages in product evolution: our focus shifts from functionality to reliability to convenience to price.

We've been looking for a video camera. We don't know much about them and wanted to make the “right” choice. We got our last one 15 years ago ─ a $1,300 Sony Hi-8mm that broke down within two years. Do video cameras now work well enough that brands are interchangeable? And do they work sell enough that they don’t break down as quickly?
Online reviews gush over the Sanyo Xacti VPC-FH1 for true high definition (1080p at 60 frames per second vs 1080i at 30 fps), eight megapixel stills, great lowlight resolution, and a reasonable price.
You’ll find plenty of information online but the choices get confusing when looking for a compact, convenient video camera. For under $300 dollars, you can get a Flip Minio or Ultra with HD. For $600, you can get better quality and more capabilities. For $900, you get even more. How much is enough?

The Camera Store
I rarely go to stores but I wanted to see the video camera before buying. I checked online and found a retail store to visit. It took 10 minutes before a sales rep was available. I asked to see the Sanyo FH1, which was hidden away, not on display. The rep recommended Canon: better optics, longer history, optical image stabilization and a 24 Mbps capture rate (Sony and Panasonic max out at 17 Mbps). Apparently, a higher capture rate means smoother recordings.

The rep implied that Sanyo warranted no further discussion. Surprisingly, he couldn't answer basic questions about the Canon
  • what resolution are still photographs? (a mere 3 megapixels ─ worse than a cheap digital camera)
  • can the output be saved directly to MP4 H.264? (I was told yes but the answer is no)
  • how do you edit AVCHD the format Canon uses? (Not easily ... time-consuming ... benefits from specialized commercial software)
The rep didn't know about a special Canon bundle with a battery and case until I showed him the store flyer he gave me. Strangely, this case has no room for the battery. Style over substance. The case for our ancient Sony kept falling over, whether empty of full. Can a company that can’t make a good case really make a good camera?

Let’s look at prices. The Sanyo FH1 costs $630 Canadian. The Canon Vixia HF200 costs $750. The rep recommended the $900 Canon Vixia HF20 which includes 32 GB of memory. The other models came without memory. Naturally, I was encouraged to get a pricey extended warranty. The costs kept adding up.

I left the store more confused than when I entered. Canon seemed choice but I didn’t want to spend that much.

More Research
I did more research online and found the Sanyo FH1 even performed better than Canon’s 2009 top-of-line Vixia HF10. Reviews identified two main drawbacks in the FH1: electronic image stabilization (which is less apparently less effective than optical image stabilization) and the lens cap is not built-in. There was excellent information at camcorderinfo.com and thoughtful comments ─ 53 pages worth.

I decided to buy the FH1. Sanyo Canada sets the list price at $600. The retailer I visited charges $630. Who would pay more than list? Dell charges $600 but had a sale price of $550.

I felt some obligation to reward the personal service at the retailer I visited (not sure why). They have a price match guarantee but exclude Dell. Why? Dell has no physical stores and has a different price structure. This was irrelevant to me. This retailer sells online too and probably sells more cameras than Dell. I ordered from Dell, saved $80 and got free delivery two days later.

Canon, Panasonic and Sony
At this time, neither Canon, Panasonic nor Sony sell a HD video camera with 1080p resolution for under $1,000 (if at all). The best they do is 1080i (which has hard-on-the-eyes interlacing). Remember the flicker you saw on cheap computer monitors with picture tubes years ago? That's interlacing. These companies save files to AVHCD format which is inconvenient for novices and requires additional software to edit.

Better specifications don't translate into better performance. Canon’s 24Mbps capture rate doesn’t lead to better results than the 16-17 Mbps used by Sony and Panasonic. Yet the rep gave that as the reason to pick Canon.

Some specifications mislead and confuse. You’ll find capture rates in Mbps (megabits per second) and the speed of memory cards in MBps (megabytes per second). One byte is eight bits. You’ll see manufacturers claim they have “1920x1080 Full HD Recording” without telling you this resolution uses interlacing and is only 30 frames per second. Sneaky.

Sanyo is hardly perfect. They are delaying sales of the pistol grip Xacti HD2000 in North America until they clear out inventory of the old HD1010. The FH1 deliberately has no jack for an external microphone but costs $100 less.

The Shopping Experience
When buying, consider nontraditional sources like Dell and Amazon ... it's your money. You can buy without going to a store unless you're tactile or have special issues that require a physical inspection (e.g., difficulty moving certain fingers).

Even if you buy in store, you won’t find the perfect product. We’re demanding but we adapt.
Visiting stores chews up time. It's difficult to try products. You're pressured to buy extended warranties. Selection is limited. Items may be out of stock. The service is inconsistent.

Shopping online is different. You can waste lots of time doing research. You can't try the products but you can find out what others think. There’s no pressure to buy extended warranties. You’re more likely to find items in stock and you have access to a much larger selection.

Lessons Learned
The experience of buying a video camera shows that the masses know more than a speciality retailer. I was sceptical before. What’s more, the masses have your best interests at heart. They aren’t taking money out of your pocket. Professional reviews help, but reader comments from around the globe can provide even deeper insights.

Podcast Episode 27 (10:20)

direct download | Internet Archive page

No comments: